Friday, February 25, 2005

ANALYSIS: SAARC and India's Security Interests

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From the points of view of our territorial integrity and security as well as economic and energy security, Bangladesh is a very important power on our eastern border. Geographically it dominates our lines of communication with the northeast, a valuable source of oil and other commodity resources for the rest of India. The Machiavellian minds that delineated the territories into India and Pakistan at the time of Partition, ensured that northeast is connected to the rest of India by a narrow corridor, hemmed in by three nations. Of these Bangladesh on the south is the biggest. In military terms, the entire corridor is within artillery range from any of the three countries, notably from the northwestern salient of Bangladesh. The entire southern border of most of the northeastern region has Bangladesh on the southern border. This part of the border is easy to cross and any meaningful border control requires the cooperation of the two countries. Bangladesh also suffers from this vulnerability with India dominating its entire land border on all sides except for 197 km in remote southeast corner bordering Myanmar. So both India and Bangladesh will always have over riding territorial security considerations in their relationship. This by itself becomes a major imperative for building friendly and equitable relations between the two countries. And it is not the responsibility of only one country.

SAARC AND INDIA’S SECURITY INTERESTS
Col R Hariharan (retd.)

India pulled out of the Dhaka SAARC summit citing reasons of security considerations. This is the fifth time India had done so in the brief history of the seven-nation alliance. The take over of power by the King in Nepal and the security situation in Bangladesh have understandably discouraged the Indian prime minister from participating in the SAARC summit. The Indian Prime Minister was fully justified in his decision because the nation cannot afford to take a chance of visiting Dhaka particularly when intelligence agencies indicated the possibility of a terrorist attack on him there during the summit. Dhaka’s law enforcing agencies’ poor record of responding to terrorist threats in the past and the continued failure to protect senior political leaders from bomb attacks there have further increased the gravity of such warnings.

The event was a big one for Bangladesh and Begum Khaleda who had been trying to refurbish the country’s image, which had been tarnished by jihadi violence and lawlessness. However, the way Delhi conveyed its decision did not appear to take Bangladesh’s sensitivity to the issue. This is symptomatic of the way India handles its neighbours at times and trample upon their sensitivity. This was more so when India’s Foreign Secretary Mr. Shyam Saran touched upon SAARC in his speech on "India and its Neighbours" at a meeting organized by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, at New Delhi and indicated that there was more to it than Nepal situation or Bangladesh security situation.

While Mr Saran’s pronouncement might not be an official statement of policy, due to the choice of venue and the mode, it gave an inkling into the official foreign policy perceptions.

Pointedly referring to India's decision not to attend the SAARC summit in Dhaka, Mr. Saran explained, "Our approach to SAARC was the only one logically sustainable - we set aside our differing political and security perceptions for the time being, and focus attention on economic cooperation. Our expectation was that the very dynamic of establishing cross-border economic linkages, drawing upon the complementarities that existed among different parts of our region, would eventually help us overcome the mutual distrust and suspicion which prevents us from evolving a shared security perception."

But the record of SAARC founded in 1985, he said, has been "hardly inspiring". "The fact is that SAARC is still largely a consultative body, which has shied away from undertaking even a single collaborative project in its 20 years of existence."

From the above pronouncements it would appear that in official thinking in future SAARC might be considered as a forum less relevant to India. A strong section of foreign policy think tanks have also highlighted the growing irrelevance of SAARC to India as it is poised to grow as a strong global economic player. There are very good reasons to draw such a conclusion. The growing India-ASEAN economic linkages, the improved bilateral India-Myanmar and India-Thai relations as a result of India’s look east policy, and the continued stagnation in India’s relations with both Pakistan and Bangladesh are some of these. India’s problems in handling Bangladesh’s fixation with Indian ‘hegemony’ and Pakistan’s five decade old Kashmir preoccupation and its undisguised sponsorship of anti-Indian terrorism for a long time have strengthened the growing doubts about the future of SAARC as a viable entity that means business.

This raises a number of questions on the relevance of SAARC to the countries of the region and in particular to India. All arguments both in favour and against the viability of SAARC published in the media appear to have ignored the question of national security. Almost all successful associations of nations - ASEAN, European Union, and now Organisation of African States – became effective only when they had security as the first consideration, because nations respond to economic links only when they feel secure with each other. A good example is the growth of EU from its early beginnings when Germany and France decided to forget their historic rivalry and felt comfortable with each other. Significantly, at the same time the Benelux alliance of Britain, Netherlands and Luxemborg failed to take off when only an economic agenda was there. Even ASEAN came into being initially thanks to the nudging of the U.S. for countering the strategic threat of China to the trading routes of the West. So if India has only economic aspects in mind as relevant to the SAARC, it is sure to limp along. Then SAARC may well be dissolved because it is India’s attitudes that matter to SAARC’s survival. India not only dwarfs all the other member countries, but it is the only country that shares a border with all other SAARC countries.

SAARC countries have a direct bearing on our national security. We have to view this in the context of the concept of strategic security moving away from mere territorial integrity. In the unipolar world with the U.S. flexing its muscles too often, union of nations has become an important concept in the balance of power equation. ASEAN and EU are two very good examples of the benefit of such collective wisdom and action.

In this sub continent, there are three aspects of strategic security very relevant to India. These three – territorial security and integrity, economic security, and energy security – are core considerations if we dream of India as a major global power in 2020. In all these three aspects, a strong and vibrant SAARC can make a true value addition. If we consider territorial integrity in the classical sense, all the countries of SAARC may be viewed as providing depth to India’s strategic defence. So even if considered purely on the basis of national security the member nations could be valuable vanguards of security or dangerous launch pads for offensive. Any collective body, which aims at better relations among these countries, would automatically strengthen their sense of security in their relations with India, the lynchpin of the collective body.

So we should view SAARC as a tool for furthering our strategic security in the long term. In this paper, it is proposed to examine India – Bangladesh relations in this context.

Both Pakistan and Bangladesh have historical reasons rooted in the creation of Pakistan for their fear and suspicion of a strong India threatening their very existence, due to their perceived threat from India to their religious, cultural, social exclusivity and national identity. Can our relations with these countries be ever turned around from latent hostility even in peaceful times, to one of understanding, so that all the smaller members of SAARC share the prosperity ushered in by bigger countries – India and Pakistan? Conceptually, this might appear far-fetched if viewed in the current context. But history is full of examples where diehard enemies became close allies after a few decades of hostility like Germany and France, and USA and Japan. Closer home Sri Lanka - India relations, which were very strained a few years back, are not only on the mend but are blooming into a new era of economic growth benefiting both.

From the points of view of our territorial integrity and security as well as economic and energy security, Bangladesh is a very important power on our eastern border. Geographically it dominates our lines of communication with the northeast, a valuable source of oil and other commodity resources for the rest of India. The Machiavellian minds that delineated the territories into India and Pakistan at the time of Partition, ensured that northeast is connected to the rest of India by a narrow corridor, hemmed in by three nations. Of these Bangladesh on the south is the biggest. In military terms, the entire corridor is within artillery range from any of the three countries, notably from the northwestern salient of Bangladesh. The entire southern border of most of the northeastern region has Bangladesh on the southern border. This part of the border is easy to cross and any meaningful border control requires the cooperation of the two countries. Bangladesh also suffers from this vulnerability with India dominating its entire land border on all sides except for 197 km in remote southeast corner bordering Myanmar. So both India and Bangladesh will always have over riding territorial security considerations in their relationship. This by itself becomes a major imperative for building friendly and equitable relations between the two countries. And it is not the responsibility of only one country.

To hasten the freedom for the country, our founding fathers had accepted the partition of India and the creation of the two wings of Pakistan. The idea of Pakistan was mooted originally in the erstwhile East Pakistan, the present day Bangladesh. Bangladeshis have a strong sense of Bangla nationality in addition to the unity of identity that is part of the very concept of Islam. It had been a part of Pakistan for over two decades, where schoolbooks have been doctored to show India and Hindus as historical enemies of Pakistan and Muslims. Entire generations have been fed on these fictions. So there is a historical element still surviving there which continues to perceive India’s relations with Bangladesh only in terms of Hindu-Muslim equation, despite India having more Muslims as citizens, living in amity with other religionists, than these two countries. Bangladesh as a new nation has a greater sense of insecurity further kindled by external agencies as well as radical Islamic elements. In India also we have sections of population, which view relations between these two breakaway products of partition, in terms of Hindu-Muslim antagonism, which aggravates the sense of insecurity.

Some of the projects that are contemplated as part of our ‘look east’ policy like India-Bangladesh-Myanmar pipeline, the India-Myanmar-Thailand road link project and India’s river transit through Bangladesh have strong energy and economic security contents. The internal insurgency movements in northeast have economic backwardness as a major cause. All these projects are essential for the development of northeast as they open the eastern gateway to the whole ASEAN region. Many of these projects require Bangladesh’s participation or involvement. And these projects can be inclusive of Bangladesh and immensely benefit it as well. Unfortunately, narrow considerations have clouded Bangladesh’s perceptions on this.

While mere bilateralism can clear the air and improve relations, invariably on a quid pro quo, it does not share a broader vision of the region as a sphere of shared perspectives on strategic security and mutual prosperity. This is where an organization like SAARC becomes more meaningful if it is sensitive to national security. Then only it can grow from an economic agenda into a much larger entity with regional security as a consideration as ASEAN has done.

If India expects to be liked by neighbours at all times on all issues it may never happen. But as in any mature relationship, there is a need for mutual space between the nations. To create this space India has to demonstrate both its sensitivity to its national security as well as its readiness to respond to the sensitivities of hypersensitive countries like Bangladesh. How we do it will determine the future of the relations between the two countries. From this point of view Mr. Saran’s depth finding exercise in plain speak on our relations with neighbours is welcome. It clears the air to explain our sensitivity. But we need to demonstrate what we say on two aspects. These are -


* We are sensitive to our security consideration without impinging upon the national sovereignty of our neighbours.


* And the neighbours can prosper along with India and have a share in India’s economic pie.


Our record of translating the platitudes and clichés that crowd our policy statements to meaningful action is dismal. We have as a nation for decades neglected responding to the security and economic needs of the country, which are closely connected with our relations with neighbours. Our response to crises had been only knee-jerk at best. A sensitive and festering issue affecting the existence of national identity like illegal migration in the northeast, had been used as a part of the political power game. It has been handled in a slap dash fashion in fits and starts. Naxalite terrorism, which is affecting 152 districts in 12 states, is still treated as a law and order issue within the responsibility of the state government. This is one reason for the poor credibility India enjoys.

In foreign policy pronouncements the need for correlation between words and action is even more important. If we can do that, SAARC will become a productive association of nations. If we cannot do so, we can concentrate only on bilateralism and forget about SAARC as a viable entity. So much would depend upon how we translate words into meaningful actions and results. Mr. Saran has said, "In a word, we are prepared to make our neighbours full stakeholders in India's economic destiny and, through such cooperation, in creating a truly vibrant and globally competitive South Asian Economic Community." So Delhi has a challenge as to convince our neighbours that "India is an opportunity, not a threat, that far from being besieged by India, they have a vast, productive hinterland that would give their economies far greater opportunities for growth than if they were to rely on their domestic markets alone". Can we do it? At least we should make a concerted effort to do so.

Col R Hariharan (retd) is an intelligence analyst with 27 years of experience in counter insurgency intelligence. He was an MI specialist on Bangladesh.